Sunday, January 25, 2009

Sermon, Epiphany 3B, Mark 1:14-20

Sermon delivered after St. Paul's annual meeting
Are you ready to die?

As we move through this year, our gospel focus, for the most part, will be on Mark. This gospel has some unique characteristics to it that are immediately evident. The first is that this is the shortest gospel. That, along with a few other textual clues, lead most scholars to think that Mark was the first gospel to be written down.

The second is Mark's use of the word "immediately." Mark reads at a frenetic pace, is full of action, and things happen immediately more often here than in any other gospel. We are only 20 verses into the gospel and Mark has already used "immediately" three times, two of them coming in today's passage.

But there is a third characteristic of Mark's gospel that may not be immediately obvious; nevertheless, it trumps the other two characteristics in importance, and that is his concern with self-sacrificial service to Christ for the sake of the gospel. No other gospel puts forth the idea of suffering, death and resurrection quite the way Mark does. In short, by choosing to follow Christ, by choosing to proclaim the gospel, by choosing the life of discipleship, then we are choosing to follow Christ on his path of suffering, dying and, ultimately, resurrection. Mark truly is a Passion Gospel with an extended introduction.

As was mentioned earlier, the sense of immediacy is seen in today's passage. "Jesus saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea - for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, 'Follow me and I will make you fish for people.' And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him."

We might hear this and wonder how this was possible, or even if this were true, because we can't imagine leaving our jobs and families "immediately" at being asked by an itinerant preacher whom they have never met to follow him. Or can we?

Have you ever had the experience of seeing something, or hearing about something, that so excited you, that so moved you, that you immediately pursued it? Maybe it happened with your spouse, or a career choice, or even with God. The process of getting married or taking a new job might be a long process, but we knew immediately that's where we needed to be.

This is what happened with the four disciples. Jesus called them and immediately they knew where they needed to be. Jesus didn't change them, he didn't necessarily give them new careers; he just modified what they were already good at. "Follow me and I will make you fish for people." They went from fishing for fish to fishing for people.

And this is where we can see Mark's concern for suffering, death and resurrection come into play for just about the first time.

A commn thought, going all the way back to the Church Fathers, is that God, through Jesus, calls us where we are. He uses the gifts and talents we already have and modifies them so that we, in turn, can meet people where they are. He doesn't necessarily call the rich or well-spoken or highly educated. He calls people, every day people, to use the talents they already possess to proclaim and help spread the kingdom of God. God is looking to gather up the people of all nations for the coming kingdom; and what better people to use for gathering up more people than fishermen?

But what about the fish?

Simon & Andrew and James & John were fishermen who cast nets for fish to bring into the boat to take back to shore to sell at market. They would keep the good ones and toss the bad ones. The bad fish ended up back in the water, lucky to be alive, continuing on with lives as they knew it. The good fish remained in the boat and died.

"Follow me and I will make you fish for people." The disciples, and us, follow Jesus, casting our nets for people, hoping to bring them into this boat we call the Church. The people who choose not to climb into this boat end up back in the waters of the world, continuing on with life as they know it. For the people who choose to join us, however . . . for the people who choose to join us and climb into this boat with us, for the people who choose to become disciples and follow Jesus . . . those people climb into the boat of the Church, leaving their old lives behind and die. Like the fish caught by those four men, they, and we, end up in the boat and die.

We die to the old ways of doing things.
We die to the desires of the world.
We die to sin.
We die to self.
We die . . . and then we are resurrected into a new life in Christ.

Discipleship is not always easy. It is sometimes painful. And it is, according to Mark, the road we are asked to follow.

We have just completed our annual meeting. We are not growing numerically, and have lost two parishioners to death. In a parish of 15, that's huge. We continue to draw down our savings to help keep the church open. We operate in a town of only 150. We certainly can't drag people into church. We can't coerce people into committing to our faith community. But we need to figure out how to do a better job of reaching out to them.

I don't have the answers to our problems or a magic solution to growth. All I can tell you is that whatever the future holds, it will take work and dedication. It will require that we get out of our familiar waters, allow ourselves to be pulled into the net of Christ, and die.

We have a new year ahead of us; are you ready to die?


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